Sam Simmons aka Atom Brands’ head of whisky aka Dr Whisky, gives you the lowdown on an exciting new single malt Scotch whisky called Wormtub which as its name suggests utilises a piece of outmoded technology, the worm tub condenser.
I was asked to write about one of our recent creations in Atom Labs, Wormtub, and I don’t really know where to begin. There’s lots I don’t know. I don’t know how old you have to be to agree with me, but analogue is cool as hell and, like it or not, it’s making a comeback.
Analogue is cool as hell
Sick of streaming services, thousands of households have abandoned their monthly subscriptions and metered media, ‘cutting the cord’ and reverting to the old-fashioned use of ‘rabbit ear’ antennas (up 9% last year). Digitised books have certainly failed at fulfilling the forecasted ‘death of books’, with physical book sales enjoying their largest annual increase (over lockdown) since 2005.
And if you’re old enough to remember Whitney Houston on the top of the charts, you’re old enough to have witnessed the fall, rise, fall and rise again of the vinyl record. After we all abandoned vinyl in the 1980s, we cleared out our parents’ basements to anyone who would take these massive, heavy pieces of history. Jump to the present day and vinyl sales aren’t just back (up 90% YOY for three years running) but records stores and wax producers are struggling to keep up with demand. Vinyl topped the only other hard copy format (CDs) for the first time since 1986.
I don’t see any point in hypothesising why we are witnessing the dramatic (and welcome) revival of these technologies cuz I’m a whisky guy and I totally get it. Whether it’s the printed book or a sexy gatefold vinyl sleeve, people relish the physical connection with the art they love, and the desire to hold it in their hands, display it on their wall and show it off to their friends. Streaming music one track at a time just feels empty to those of us who grew up saving up pennies for our favourite band’s new cassette, reading all the liner notes on the way home via public transit, finally pressing play and sitting still for 60 minutes while we soaked in the sounds of our new acquisition. We’re the big kids driving the prices of the iconic yellow Sony Walkman up and up and up.
Old-school whisky is best
In whisky, just as in music or publishing industries, real clever folks are trying to model analogue in digital and the results are always less than perfect if not wholly unpalatable; literally in the case of some of these futuristic hyper-matured meta-malts. Single malt Scotch whisky has been made pretty much the same way for two centuries and it’s exactly this adherence to antiquated ways that have cemented its cherished status on our back bars and in our glasses.
With that lengthy introduction over, I attempt to come back to the topic at hand. There is one traditional method of whisky making that was once ubiquitous but was largely replaced with more modern techniques but is seeing a recent resurgence in new-build distilleries. I’m talking about worm tub condensers, those large wooden tubs filled with a spiralling copper pipe surrounded by cool water which you can learn more about in the piece our friend Lucy Britner wrote on this site in March 2021. But our Wormtub has its origins in March 2018, when I started here at Atom Brands as head of whisky.
What does head of whisky mean?
“What does ‘head of whisky’ mean?” I recall countless colleagues asking me in my first few months here, and while I am still endeavouring to find a satisfactory answer internally, externally I have explained it to the likes of my father-in-law as a ‘whisky designer’, telling him we buy fabrics and cut them into new suits and dresses, but with whisky! We aren’t distillers of whisky, but we work with distillers, brokers, and private individuals to curate the whiskies we want to bottle or need to build the blends and brands we’re trying to design. I experimented with the stocks we had on-hand (probably a bit too much?) in those first months resulting in recipes for what would become Burnt Ends (peaty Scotch blended with Tennessee rye), World Whisky Blend, the maple syrup cask-finished whiskies under the Defilement label, and registered Wormtub, a brand name I had kept in my back pocket for nearly a decade for some future use, as yet undetermined.
Atoms Brands was already well established in bottling single cask or small batch whiskies for a decade with That Boutique-y Whisky Company (10th Birthday September 12, 2022!) or under its Darkness label and in my initial stock takes, I discovered several litres of hundreds of different historic bottlings that had been left as remnants in drums and jerry cans in our Edinburgh facility. Offcuts, to continue the fashion metaphor, and they got me thinking: what could I do with these precious drops?
Meanwhile, our head buyer, Toby Cutler, managed to secure some of the best liquids we could have ever hoped for and, most importantly when planning longer term on-going products, liquids we could buy in agreed limited volumes consistently. This changed everything and meant we could begin considering more than just single cask and small batch limited editions but could start creating ongoing offerings, consistent products, listables, dare I say… brands.
A world of wonderful whiskies
So we planned to launch the first ongoing TBWC offering, World Whisky Blend. We prepared the octave cask finishing of one of my favourite hidden gem Speyside distilleries to offer an ongoing ‘flagship’ Darkness whisky, Darkness 8 Year Old. We created a range of Islay whiskies around a steady (though extremely limited) ten-year-old Islay supply, Aerolite Lyndsay. And we began thinking of ways to bring that IP we registered in my first few months at Atom to life.
I have always felt that whatever it meant as time went on, head of whisky could not just be overseeing the bottling of cool casks Toby or Felix (Dear, our world whisky buyer) could find but should involve some actual whisky creation. I am a blended Scotch drinker, I love blended and blended malt Scotch whisky and I love the creativity involved in carefully marrying flavours together to create something new. What if, I thought, we could design a batched blended malt from just the distilleries that still use traditional worm tub condensers?
Wormtub mark 1
Our first iteration spent an insane amount of time (and money) in design planning (a process new to Atom that fortunately never became a habit) and as a result, never came into existence. The second attempt saw great speed in planning under the guidance of my colleague Rosie Milsom and demanded a quick liquid design that finally found an application for some of the earlier identified offcuts and remnants. The first Wormtub recipe used two different casks of Craigellachie 10 year old, Glen Elgin 12 year old, sherried Benrinnes 9, Balmenach 16 and Mortlach 20. It went live March 2020 as a no-age-statement blended malt. And… it sold slowly, probably mostly to friends and colleagues who knew what was inside. It turns out the average whisky buyer a) wants an age statement and b) doesn’t want blended malt. Look, I wish it wasn’t so and will continue to blend at every opportunity I get, but if we want to properly test Wormtub as a concept, let alone a liquid representative of what’s its name, we’ve got to try it as a single.
Fortunately, this reality was hedged against years earlier when we took some utterly beautiful whisky from a worm tub distillery in Speyside that practises partial triple distillation but cannot be named and reracked it into refill and first-fill sherry casks. When we tasted the progress of these casks at the end of 2021, we knew what to do.
Old-school style whisky
Old school style whisky, whisky that uses a traditional method like worm tub condensers should probably just be kept simple. It doesn’t need a whisky designer. It’s analogue, don’t fuck with it, Simmons.
In February 2022, Rosie and Ben (Ellefsen) worked with our label designer colleague Lee Deering to reimagine the package with simplicity and flashes of copper and visual references to the worms themselves. We brought a few of the casks, now at least 10 years old, into our bottling hall “to have a look”, as my former colleague and mentor David C. Stewart MBE would say. When we saw the natural colour and the depth of flavour we were confident this was the liquid to try a new iteration of Wormtub with but agreed it had to be kept “high fidelity”, shown in all its natural glory. We would leave it without colour, without reduction or addition of water, at natural cask strength. Analogue, baby.
Wormtub Batch 1 went live in May 2022 and as I write we’re bottling batch 2. Like a live recording, captured right off the floor of studio A at Abbey Road, straight to tape, with light mastering (via sherry hoggies), Wormtub is no digital whisky. So drop the needle, and I hope you like it as much as we do.
Wormtub 10 Year Old – Batch 2 has arrived. Get involved.